The hot theatrical doc season begins! The month of April sees two much-anticipated documentaries being released, Errol Morris‘ Standard Operating Procedure (on April 25) and Morgan Spurlock‘s Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? (on April 18). Although both of these are from A-list filmmakers, these two documentaries have a lot stacked against them — both have been getting mixed reviews (although Morris won the top prize at the Berlin film festival), and their subject matters are pretty challenging for different reasons.
In his film, Morris casts his brilliant, quirky and often sobering eye on the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal. But with a couple of docs out recently on related subjects (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Taxi to the Dark Side) and with a slew of features about the Iraq War having tanked at the box office (the recent Stop-Loss was relentlessly sold to a young audience by its production company, MTV — to no avail), I don’t see Morris’s latest effort as contributing to his recent growth in popularity — his last film, 2003′s Fog of War, not only won him his first Oscar, but made more money ($5 million) than all of his previous films combined. But does Morris care if he wins a popularity award? Actually, sometimes I think he does.
Now, I know Spurlock cares about his popularity — he is an unabashed filmmaker for the people, and he is really swinging for the fences on this one. His movie is a clear attempt to appeal to young audiences. It’s got a nine-foot, animated ninja-fighting Osama Bin Laden flying around the world in no-holds-barred video-game style. But will audiences over 30 years of age get the joke? And if they don’t, will kids want to see that weird guy with funny facial hair tromping through Pakistan? It’s a tough call. But I have to reserve judgment at this point because distributor The Weinstein Company tells me that the version of the film that I saw at Sundance has changed — I’ll be watching the altered version tonight. I’ll make sure to let you know if the changes are significant.
But maybe the hottest April doc of all will be coming from a little known British television documentarian named Stephen Walker. His Young@Heart rolls out this Wednesday, and distributor Fox Searchlight has high hopes that it could break through the traditional box office ceiling for docs. I’m talking in the $10 to $20 million range. That’s a bold call, I know, but this is the first documentary on their slate in over ten years, so I’m taking them seriously. Even if $2-$4 million is more realistic, it would still be great to see.
If there were ever a documentary that could win over mass audiences, it’s this one. The film is about a senior citizen choir that sings contemporary songs originally performed by the likes of Sonic Youth, Talking Heads. and The Clash. It’s a trip watching the octogenerians try to wrestle with the songs, but what I slowly realized as I watched the film is that this is a rare look into the lives of older people. I was also enraptured by the dramatic arc of the film. As I watched one, and then two of the main protagonists pass away during the making of the film, I found myself close to tears. Finally, when a heaving, geriatric man hooked to a respirator beautifully sings the sweet Coldplay song, “Fix You,” after a friend passes away, I was over the brink. Young@Heart is the tear-jerker of 2008!